A Virtual Monmouthshire Meander

Spring is certainly in the air, and usually, this is the time of year that we share our fabulous county with tourists from across the world. Although we miss the sleepier months, we rely on the tourist industry for survival, so it’s generally a very welcome return.

Of course, this year is very different. For those who have visited, were due to visit or plan to visit in the future this is my ‘Virtual’ visitors guide taking in some of my favourite famous, and secret spaces, in this little county nestled on the Welsh border. A gentle Monmouthshire Meander.

Known in Welsh as Sîr Fynwy, Monmouthshire is most famous for the spectacular Wye Valley which meanders gracefully from Monmouth down to Chepstow and out into the Severn estuary. It is said that that British tourism began here in the 18th century when a boat trip down the valley was considered a very fashionable ‘must-do’. There are outdoor pursuits galore, from wonderful hikes to canoe hire and cycling, with much in between. Why not discover wild swimming in the Wye or climb one of our spectacular hills, and be completely at one with nature?

Monmouth

Nestled on the banks of the River Wye, the county town of Monmouth is famed for several things; Monmouth Caps, Monmouth Puddings, Rockfield Studios (which, over the past 50 years has seen everybody from Queen to Oasis record in its hallowed converted barns) and The Roundhouse, a pretty piece of Georgian architecture, which served as rather smart picnicking house, and is to be found perched on the Kymin hill, high above the town.

Here, you can hire canoes and take a day trip down the river stopping for lunch at one of the riverside pubs and enjoyed spectacular cliffs, wild woods and a plethora of wildlife. Don’t miss the 13th century Gatehouse which crosses the Monnow, the small river from which the county and town gets its name. Located at the bottom end of town it’s the only remaining fortified river bridge in the UK with its gatehouse standing.

A visit to the Castle is also a must. Tucked up a side street, close to the Monmouthshire Regimental Museum you’ll find the ruins of Monmouth Castle, famous for being the birthplace of the future Henry the V, his statue can be found above the Georgian Shire Hall. It was also the home town of Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce fame, who’s life was lost in the first ever aeroplane crash, his statue sits in the centre of Agincourt Square . The castle is the perfect place for a short picnic stop. Pick up some yummy goodies from the wonderful Marches Deli, which sells, amongst other things, local bread and cheeses, ciders, wines and a good variety of pickles and relishes. Stop at Green and Jenks in the main square for an Italian-style gelato, all made from locally sourced daily and fruit with an ever-changing selection of mouthwatering flavours.

Chepstow

Monmouthshire’s most southernly town, Chepstow, has a nationally famous castle, and some of its original town walls still stand. Once in the keeping of the legendary William Marshall, one of history’s most famous Knights, Chepstow Castle sits high above the River Wye facing imposing cliffs and watching out over the border with England. Chepstow castle is also reputed to be the site of a long lost Celtic chapel in which Joseph of Aramethea is reputed to have hidden the Spear of Longinus, which was said to have pierced the side of Christ. There has also been talk of the hidden, mummified head of Shakespeare, which became the subject of a series of archaeological digs in the 1920s spear-headed by the American treasure-hunter Orville Ward Owen. Chepstow is a place of many mysteries and there are plenty of cafes to while away a few hours. A few miles upstream is Tintern Abbey, the ruins of a cistercian abbey which was destroyed on the orders Henry VIII in the 1530s. Over the ensuing 500 years the picturesque ruins have been immortalised in word and paint by the likes of William Wordsworth and JW Turner, and are quite beautiful to behold, languishing gracefully beside the gentle river. As you drive from Tintern to Chepstow, you can see climbers scaling the cliffs, as the river disappears below, setting a more isolated course as it moves the final few miles towards the estuary. A short journey towards Newport brings you to Caerwent, a Roman town, packed full of archaeological remains and a small museum telling its story.

Abergavenny

In the shadow of the Black Mountains, sitting on the banks of the Usk river, Abergavenny is famed for its annual Food Festival, now in its 22nd year and one of the biggest in Britain. Every September, thousands of people descend on this pretty little market town to hob-nob with the elite of the British food and drink industry, while picking up some rather tasty foodie offerings. The Angel Hotel has, in recent, years become rather famous for its afternoon teas and The Angel Bakery, tucked down a side street leading to the castle makes wonderful sourdough, cakes and pastries, perfect for picking up a few things for lunch before heading into the hills to explore the Black Mountains. Abergavenny Castle is, rather unfortunately, most well know for a pretty horrendous massacre at the end of the 12th century which saw the Norman lord William De Broase order the slaughter of his dinner guests, the Welsh Prince Seisyll and his retainers. The castle is picturesque, and massacre aside, makes for an interesting visit. Just outside the town you’ll find the Skirrid Mountain, well worth the effort to climb as the views are stunning and whilst you’re in the area, why not stop for a pint at the historic Skirrid Inn, reputedly the most haunted pub in Britain. In the shadow of The Skirrid is Michelin starred, Walnut Tree restaurant, enjoying legendary status and offering extremely delicious seasonal dishes or try The Harwick, owned my celebrity chef Stephen Terry, which has held a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2011. The Sugar Loaf mountain is also a delight to climb, however there is a local saying, “If you can’t see The Sugar Loaf, its raining, and if you can see The Sugar Loaf, it’s about to rain,” so wellies and waterproofs at the ready!

Usk

Named after the river upon which it sits, Usk is a very sleepy market town with a fabulous farmer’s market, held on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of the month. Usk Castle, which sits nestled in trees above the quaint Twyn Square, and is privately owned, is available to hire for events. Around the town there are plenty of craft shops selling hand-crafted goodies, a small museum of Rural Life and several rather good places to eat and drink. Why not head to The Mad Platter for cocktails and nibbles, before a meal at the historic Three Salmons coaching inn? A little outside the town, on the Llanbadoc road is Morris’ of Usk, garden centre and farm shop – it’s a great place to stock up on locally produced, and regionally sourced products, and they do a rather yum breakfast in the onsite restaurant – the road eventually arrives at the Roman Fortress of Caerleon, with its impressive ruins and recently renovated museum, however this is no longer Monmouthshire, but the county of Newport.

For further information please click on the following links:

http://www.wyedeantourism.co.uk/

https://www.visitmonmouthshire.com/

https://www.visitwales.com/


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Stories of Stilton

There are certain things that I order every Christmas, which admittedly, are rather indulgent; whole cheeses, specialist drinks, charcuterie and chocolate. These are the items which make the Christmas period extra special, impresses guests and, in their own way creates family traditions – without exception I always seek out a really good Stilton, but I opt for a whole ‘baby’ cheese, even I would be pushed to consume a whole standard Stilton!

Christmas and Stilton go hand in hand, served with Port after pudding, the salty voluptuousness of this very British cheese compliments the sweet port admirably. Stilton is one of the few cheeses in the UK awarded  PDO (protected designation of origin) status and has it’s own protected logo. It can only be made in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire although its true origins are a little more sketchy . The village of Stilton, which is now in Cambridgeshire, and where the name originated in the 18th century, is not within the PDO boundaries, therefore no cheese made there can be sold as Stilton. Believed to have originated in the early 18th century, Stilton is synonymous with the famous Bell Inn, which, in the 1720s allegedly produced the best cheese in the town. This was most likely the work of early entrepreneur and hotelier Cooper Thornhill who ‘discovered’ the cheese in Melton Mowbray and negotiated exclusive re-sale rights. His hotel, situated on the Great North Road proved an excellent location from which to deal in Stilton and its fame spread.

IMG_6600Stilton should be left to breathe before serving, and, although today we scoop the gently rippled, blue cheese from within its rind, before spreading it on crackers, oatcakes or crusty bread, originally it was served in a rather more unusual fashion. Daniel Defoe, wrote in 1724, that he passed through Stilton, a town famous for a cheese which is known as English Parmesan. The cheese was brought to the table with mites or maggots surrounding it, so thick as to require a spoon to consume – these were eaten alongside the cheese -so next time you and your friends consider why Stilton is spooned, you may want to share that rather ‘interesting’ nugget of culinary history.

So what makes a true Stilton cheese? Stilton is made from local pasteurised milk and is an un-pressed cheese, the distinctive blue veining comes from the insertion of steel rods during the maturing process, which allows the air to get into the cheese and react with the cultures. It must have the flavour profile of Stilton and hold a fat content of approximately 35 %. It is ripened for 9-12 weeks and must conform to the traditional conical shape. Celebrated in poetry and song, the Stilton will long be a part of our Christmas table. Delicious with pears or melted into cream for a British take on Fondue, Stilton is a versatile cheese which, quite rightfully, has its place at the centre of the Great British Cheeseboard – although, a word of warning, Stilton is said to cause bad dreams if eaten too soon before sleep – and pouring port into the recess left after scooping the cheese out is considered very uncouth indeed!


The Pheasant Philosophises: Part 4: Queen Victoria’s Pineapple

In a society of sexual equality, I often think to the past and wonder what stories lie fullsizeoutput_173ebehind others. In childhood, I was always regaled with tales of my Great Great Great Grandfather, an interesting character who had, apparently, owned an Italian Fruit Warehouse in Bath during the 1840s and 50s. As a man he intrigued me, there were tales of Plantations in the West Indies, of his being butler to Lord Aberdare; there were rumours of Covent Garden premises and a pineapple presented to Queen Victoria on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’ first birthday. He always struck me as being interesting, with an obvious passion for food and I wondered whether I inherited my love of food from him. A few years ago, after I had my son, I fell into one of those “I need to discover my true heritage” moments and 6 years later I now have a story quite different to the one offered to me as a child.

Lewis Evans called himself ‘A Gentleman’ when he was married, in Bath in 1837. His address was Milsom Street, now the extremely busy high street. He lived with his cousin and her husband, another Gentleman, in this fashionably city. He had no profession. I cannot even conclusively find evidence of his father or mother (in fact his father was listed as a shoemaker, an odd profession for the parent of a Gentleman). So he was a bit of an enigma. I delved into the census records and found him, four years later, no longer a gentleman but a Fruiterer. How did this come about? Well, are you sitting comfortably? I’ll begin.

In the 1830’s two sisters from Cheltenham went into business. Their mother had been a Fruiterer and their father an Innkeeper. The sisters were called Louisa and Eliza Clayton-Bourne and as partners they opened a delicatessen on the Promenade, in the centre of town. Nether being much over 20, these two woman worked hard for their living and it proved successful. So successful, in fact that by 1836 the younger sister, Eliza aged about 18, left her sister to set up a second ‘branch’ of the business in Bath, Somerset. The address was also prestigious. It was located in the York Buildings, a few steps from Milsom Street. This shop stocked all manner of wonderfully exotic foods, supplying the gentry and aristocracy of the City with out-of-season fruits from hot-houses in the country; Italian oils, cheeses, Westphalian Hams, and many of the other unusual and fashionable foods which graced the tables of Britain’s elite in a time of foodie enlightenment.  So, Victoria is about to ascend to the throne and we have two, very young and successful business women. What happens next?IMG_7841

The arrows of love strike. As a young woman in fashionable Bath surrounded with frock-coated, stove-pipe hatted gentleman, Eliza Clayton-Bourne meets and  marries Lewis Evans; a few days before which, she breaks partnership with her sister. The sisters have not fallen out, Eliza’s business has simply ‘gone’ to her husband. She is now his possession, as is her business. Now, whether or not he had an active role in the day-to-day running of the business is uncertain. I have invoices which he has signed, his name appears in the newspapers of the day advertising the wonderful array of produce in store. In 1842 he is thanked for the gift of a pineapple to the royal household but Eliza just disappears into thin air. By the early 1850s, and several children later, the business at York Buildings is sold and the newspaper which advertises the new proprietor unwittingly gives us a wonderful clue to the true nature of the business. The first is a letter from Mrs Lewis Evans, thanking her customers for their business over the previous years and inviting them to continue to purchase from the shop which is quite safe in the hands of the new owner – a man. Just below this letter is another letter from the new proprietor. He kindly thanks the previous owner whom he names as Mr Lewis Evans, and respectably invites previous customers to continue their accounts. Not once does it even mention Eliza, not even a Mr and Mrs Evans.

This makes me wonder how many businesses  run by women in the Victorian era and beforehand, have lost these crucial details under the name of their husband. Louisa, the elder sister, did not marry until well into her 30s, by which time she had sold her Cheltenham business and moved to Bath where she owned and ran a boarding house for those taking the waters. An independent woman for as long as she could be, Louisa eventually ran a successful restaurant in Cardiff with her new husband.

In one final interesting note; I have seen the marriage certificate of Lewis Evans and in the space below his trade and next to the name of his wife somebody has started to write something, only a few dots of ink, but I do wonder whether she was overruled in her insistency to put her own trade down, she was of course literate and her handwriting was far better than her husband’s.

Oh, how I wish I could have been a fly on their wall. My gut feeling is that Eliza was the driving force behind the business throughout it’s existence; something she fitted around having five or six children. Yes, they lived comfortably…until something happened, something I’ve yet to find out, and the family scattered throughout the country.

Perhaps she did ultimately resolve to hand the business to her husband and maybe he just wasn’t as good at it as she was.


Waste not, want not….

  

Two years ago, on Christmas Eve, a relative of mine was in Lidl and witnessed the staff throwing frozen Turkeys into black bags. Where were they going? she inquired. The bin, she was told. They weren’t allowed to give them away, they had to be destroyed. The staff were very upset but they were under orders. Last year was a little better but as we approach the season of overindulgence I think we should all think about what we buy and what we let rot.

We are all guilty of buying too much, advertising and the choice we are offered allows for a much more varied diet. In our parent’s and grandparent’time food was generally associated with a particular day, leftovers from the Sunday roast became bubble and squeak on Monday and soup on Tuesday. Friday was fish day, a ham was boiled on a Sunday for the week’s sandwiches. People didn’t mind ‘eating up’ the firmer slices of bread or ‘trimming up’ the cheese.

Today the most popular dish in Britain for a Monday night is Spaghetti Bolognese; fresh mince, pasta, nothing from the day before. Of course now we can’t just eat Spag Bol, we need garlic bread, coleslaw, salad….and more often than not the salad (bagged and prewashed in chemicals) is sitting in its own juice come Friday. Into the bin it goes.

  
 As a nation we have been encouraged to obey all sell by dates – when I was a child we used our noses – if something smelt ok, it probably was. Which leads me to wonder whether, now preservatives are used throughout the food industry, they mask the smell of ‘off’ food or preserve beyond the dates stamped…as humanity has survived for thousands of years without use-by dates why can we not trust our instincts now, even if companies are obliged to provide such dates. 

  
The amount of food wasted in this country is ridiculous. With celebrity chefs taking up the cause I think it’s about time to tackle this issue.  If we try and cook from scratch we are less lightly to waste, so dig out those recipes from granny, plan meals and perhaps use leftovers for packed lunches or as the basis for soups or pasta sauces; and enjoy the simple pleasure of cold cuts with chutneys and sauces. Bake your own cakes and you rely on their feel, a sponge gone a little hard? Warm it and serve with custard or make a trifle. Think outside the box – you may be surprised at what can be achieved.